Stamping out crime: Postal Service spends millions on TV show about its crime-fighting inspectors

The Postal Service has spent more than $16 million on “The Inspectors,” a TV drama aimed at educating teenagers and their parents about mail crimes.

A teddy bear arrives in the mail, and inspectors immediately suspect foul play. They open the package and see the bear has been split open and stitched back up, with narcotics stuffed inside its fluffy belly. Postal officials take the package to its destination, hoping to catch the drug dealer red-handed.

This is not a real narcotics case. It’s an episode of The Inspectors, a TV crime drama paid for by the U.S. Postal Service’s inspection division.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service has doled out more than $16 million since 2014 to a television entertainment firm to produce and air the show, which is aimed at educating teenagers and their parents about mail fraud, consumer scams and similar crimes.

The agency says the TV program — which airs Saturday mornings on CBS — has been a big success. It’s paid for with money from the Postal Service’s asset forfeiture and consumer fraud awareness funds, not from postage revenues or tax dollars.

“The Postal Inspection Service’s primary objective in sponsoring the program is to raise awareness of consumer fraud” and provide tips to consumers on avoiding mail scams, the agency said in response to a Freedom of Information request from USA TODAY.

But the initiative has come under fire from at least one lawmaker in Congress — and one late-night comedian.

“The show is pretty much what you would expect if a bunch of civil servants from the postal service had their own show,” John Oliver cracked on a recent episode of his satirical show on politics and current events. “The whole thing is basically a mix of teenage soap opera, police procedural and a PSA about how to protect yourself from various mail-related crimes.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., isn’t laughing.

“I know postal inspectors do great and important work, but I’m not sure they need to be sponsoring a scripted TV drama when the agency is having such massive financial problems and closing post offices in Missouri and across the country,” McCaskill said in December, after she fired off a letter to Post Master General Megan Brennan asking for details about The Inspectors.

A self-funded government agency, the USPS has suffered from declining revenue in stamp sales and other services, as more consumers use email and the Internet to communicate. McCaskill has been among those in Congress pushing for a postal reform bill that would help the agency save money without slashing services.

Among the Missouri Democrat’s questions about The Inspectors: How much has the Postal Service spent on the show? Who approved it? And has the agency done any analysis to determine whether it’s effective in educating consumers about mail fraud?

In its response to USA TODAY’s questions, the Postal Inspection Service said it contracted with Litton Syndications Inc. in 2014 to “develop, write, produce and air” a consumer awareness show that delivers a crime prevention message to a target audience: 13-to-16-year-olds and their parents.

The show stars Jessica Lundy as the lead postal inspector, and Bret Green as her teenage son, who interns in the postal inspection’s “crime lab.”

“This campaign will further establish the U.S. Postal Inspection Service as a recognized nationwide leading provider of consumer protection information and education to this target audience, which includes future mailers and postal customers,” the Postal Inspection Service’s contract with Litton states.

According to the contract, other goals include improving the public image and perception of the Postal Inspection Service among younger Americans and increasing public confidence in the U.S. mail system. The original contract with Litton was for $5.4 million for two years, and the agency renewed it through this fall.

The 30-minute program uses real cases from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service as fodder for the fictional scripts. “Each storyline must be entirely original and not recognizable as any particular USPIS case,” the contract states.

Asked about its effectiveness, the Postal Inspection Service said it uses Neilsen ratings as way to measure success. “According to these ratings, each episode of The Inspectors — including reruns — consistently reaches an audience of more than 1 million viewers,” the Postal Service said.

Of course, those numbers don’t reveal anything about whether The Inspectors has reduced mail fraud or burnished the Postal Service’s image.

Drew Pusateri, a spokesman for McCaskill, said the senator hasn’t reached any conclusions about the show’s merits yet. 

“We’re continuing to look into the issue and are seeking additional information from USPS,” he said.

But Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group, said funding a TV crime drama seemed like a questionable — and expensive — media strategy.  

“It seems more like a vanity project than a legitimate public relations move,” Ellis said. 

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